Turn Of Century Remix: The Latest Groove’s American
Ives: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4, The Unanswered Question, Central Park in the Dark. Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot (conductor). SS Media SSM1009 Jan. 2016
Bolcom: Canciones de Lorca, Prometheus. René Barbera (tenor), Jeffrey Biegel (piano), Pacific Symphony, Pacific Chorale, Carl St. Clair (conductor). Naxos 8.559788 Nov. 2015
Bates: The B-Sides, Liquid Interface, Alternative Energy. Mason Bates (electronica), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor). SFS Media SFS 0065, SACD
Zappa: 200 Motels: Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Zappa 101, 2CDs
By Richard S. Ginell
DIGITAL REVIEW — The four leading symphony orchestras on the West Coast — the Seattle, Pacific, and San Francisco symphonies and the Los Angeles Philharmonic — have all come out with recordings of music by American composers during the 2015-16 season. (Make that five, if you include the Oregon Symphony’s Spirit of the American Range collection from earlier in 2015). Either it’s a coincidence or a confluence of events that show how these orchestras are making the Left Coast a hotbed of programming enterprise.
From Seattle, Ludovic Morlot serves up a terrific (on paper) lineup of Charles Ives in his most profound, most complex, wildest, funniest, and simplest moods as the second installment in his survey of the composer’s orchestral music. The performance of the Symphony No. 4, heard in the most recent critical edition, is a big improvement over Morlot’s sometimes bland rendition of the Symphony No. 2 from 2014, although other versions — like Michael Tilson Thomas’ Chicago disc and the pioneering Leopold Stokowski recording — have the edge in sheer raucous sass in the mad, mad second movement (subtitled “The Comedy”).
In Central Park in the Dark, Morlot slows the tempo way down; it’s almost twice as long as any other version (I thought the timing 11:22 on the jewel box was a misprint, but no, that’s how long it is). It takes what seems like forever to get to the crazy central climax, but you get a good, saucy payoff. The Unanswered Question is also slow, but more within the usual bounds. Morlot is at his most persuasive in the smaller-scaled, milder-mannered Symphony No. 3; the refined, caressing textures are matched by the warm recorded sound, and the bells at the end of the piece are the most haunting on recordings.
Carl St. Clair and the Pacific Symphony and Chorale, based in Orange County, gave the world premiere of William Bolcom’s song cycle Canciones de Lorca at the very first concert in its current home, the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, on Sept. 15, 2006, with Plácido Domingo, no less, singing as heroically as ever. The PSO finally recorded the piece after a seven-year wait — without Domingo, alas, but with an excellent tenor, René Barbera, who gives a beautiful, clear-voiced account of the vocal line.
The cycle is yet another among countless contemporary works with texts by the Spanish poet-martyr Federico Garcia Lorca, and Bolcom serves it up like an enlightened tourist with his own witty, moody Andalusian-flavored language. Toward the close of the cycle, there is a touch of urban jazz in the interlude “A Poet in New York,” and by the time we reach the last song, “El poeta llega a La Habana,” Bolcom leaves us with a jumpy, stylized mambo.
The companion work, Prometheus, with a text by Lord Byron chanted and sung by the Pacific Chorale and an extensive solo piano part expertly handled by Jeffrey Biegel, is something else entirely. The model for the forces involved may have been Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, but there is little uplift in this weighty, rugged, troubled soundscape, almost the polar opposite of the eclectic, populist Bolcom of Canciones. Edge to Canciones in this coupling.
As another entry in their American Mavericks recording agenda, Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony devote an entire disc to three orchestral-electronic works by Mason Bates, who may be the most interesting of today’s under-40 composers collaborating with major orchestras. Bates’s specialty — and strength — is in making workable, colorful, audience-friendly fusions of the colors of the symphony orchestra and electronica from a laptop with a cool 21st-century attitude.
The B-Sides refer to the flip side of a hit pop 7-inch or 12-inch vinyl single (not long ago, the title would have been an obsolete anachronism; given the current vinyl revival, it’s right in fashion). Bates inserts such samples as NASA space talk and what sounds like an old-fashioned typewriter, some jazz, and the pounding beat of warehouse techno into a suite of five diverse pieces.
With Liquid Interface, Bates addresses the subject of global warming, evoking water everywhere from cracking Antarctic glaciers to Hurricane Katrina. “Crescent City” is the centerpiece, where Katrina sweeps a jazzy depiction of New Orleans into chaos with torrents of storm wind effects from Bates’ laptop. Alternative Energy channels the global-warming theme into a study of energy sources past, present, and future, mixing percussion “instruments” found in a Chicago junkyard, ferocious sounds from the FermiLab particle collider, and other sources into a piece that has a jazzy, lurching verve.
The B-Sides and Liquid Interface, both SFS commissions, are first recordings. Alternative Energy was recorded previously by Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony but is only available as a download or stream. MTT’s performance has a bit more zip than Muti’s in the first movement; MTT knows how to swing the jazz passages perhaps more idiomatically than anyone could, though Muti is pretty good, too. Bates is in the thick of the action, hurling forth the electronica in both recordings.
Finally, the compulsively adventurous Los Angeles Philharmonic checks in with an audio document of one of the most outlandish ideas ever concocted for a landmark event. To celebrate the 10th anniversary (to the day) of the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall on Oct. 23, 2013, the LA Phil and its bemused conductor laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen presented a 100-minute set of 13 “suites” from Frank Zappa’s massive life-on-the-road theater piece 200 Motels, complete with raucous rock-opera staging.
Without the visual distractions of props like illuminated phalluses and over-the-top acting, we can at last concentrate upon the music — and Zappa’s vivid imagination, relentless penchant for satire, and hero worship of Varèse, as sharply recorded by the Zappa Family Trust team, gain greater stature when heard on CDs. At its best, Zappa’s writing is portentous, exuberant, dissonant, and idiosyncratically orchestrated, with plenty of clattering, roaring percussion as befitting a Varèse acolyte. The whole thing is brilliantly played by the LA Phil with a precision that might have even pleased the notoriously hard-to-please composer.
Warning: Your appreciation of Zappa’s musical hijinx may be limited by your tolerance for puerile and salacious dialogue. But if you accept that the serious and the ridiculous are all mixed together in Zappa’s universe, you’ll get it.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.Date posted: April 7, 2016